The Nature-Culture Divide

Prehistoric Man Hunting Bears Painting
Emmanuel Benner/Art Images/Getty Images

Nature and culture are often seen as opposite ideas: what belongs to nature cannot be the result of human intervention and, on the other hand, cultural development is achieved against nature. However, this is by far the only take on the relationship between nature and culture. Studies in the evolutionary development of humans suggest that culture is part and parcel of the ecological niche within which our species thrived, thus rendering culture a chapter in the biological development of a species.

An Effort Against Nature

Several modern authors, such as Rousseau, saw the process of education as a struggle against the most eradicated tendencies of human nature. Humans are born with wild dispositions, such as the one of using violence to achieve one’s own goals, to eat in a disorganized fashion, or to treat each other egoistically. Education is that process which uses culture as an antidote against our wildest natural tendencies; it is thanks to culture that the human species could progress and elevate itself above and beyond other species.

A Natural Effort

Over the past century and a half, however, studies in the history of human development have clarified how the formation of what we refer to as "culture", in an anthropological sense, is part and parcel of the biological adaptation of our ancestors to the environmental conditions in which they came to live.

Consider, for example, hunting.

Such an activity seems an adaptation, which allowed hominids to move from the forest into the savannah some millions of year ago, opening up the opportunity to change diet and living habits. At the same time, the invention of weapons is directly related to that adaptation. But, from weapons descend also a whole series of skill sets characterizing our cultural profile: from butchering tools to ethical rules relating to the proper use of weapons (e.g., should they be turned against other human beings or against cooperating species?); from the drive to use fire for dietary purposes to the invention of jewelry.

Hunting seems also responsible for a whole set of bodily abilities, such as balancing on one foot: humans are the only primates that can do that. Now, think of how this very simple thing is crucially connected to dance, a key expression of human culture. It is then clear that our biological development is closely tied to our cultural development.

Culture as an Ecological Niche

The view that over the past decades came to be most plausible seems thus that culture is part and parcel of the ecological niche within which humans live. Snails carry their shell; we bring along our culture.

Now, the transmission of culture seems not to be directly related to the transmission of genetic information. Certainly, the significant overlap between the genetic makeup of humans is a premise for the development of a common culture, that can be passed along from one generation to the next. However, cultural transmission is also horizontal, that is among individuals within the same generation or among individuals belonging to different populations. You can learn how to make lasagna even if you were born from Korean parents in Kentucky; you can learn how to speak Tagalog even if none of your family members speak that language.

Further Readings on Nature and Culture

The online sources on the nature-culture divide are scarce. Luckily, there are a number of good bibliographical resources that can help out. Here is a list of few of the more recent ones, from which older takes on the topic can be recovered.

Peter Watson, The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New, Harper, 2012.

Alan H. Goodman, Deborah Heat, and Susan M. Lindee, Genetic Nature/Culture: Anthropology and Science Beyond the Two-Culture Divide, University of California Press, 2003.

Rodney James Giblett, The Body of Nature and Culture, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.